Riley: It's Time To Move Past Education Policy Wars

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The nation's top education official wants educators and parents to stop bickering and get to work.

"It's hard to build America's future and put education first when so many debates in education are tinged by a growing sense of rigidity that I find troubling," Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said last week in his fifth annual State of American Education Address. "Sometimes people seem to be hunting for ways to disagree."

Whether the debate is between whole-language and phonics advocates or over the emphasis on memorization vs. conceptual understanding of mathematics, "this unhealthy habit of thinking in dogmatic ways does our children little good," Mr. Riley said Feb. 17 in a speech at a Seattle middle school.

Art of Compromise

The solution, he asserted, is to find the best components from each side of such debates and integrate them into a combined curriculum.

"Most children need some combination of phonics and reading comprehension, and the emphasis has to be put on what works best for each child," Mr. Riley said.

"I also urge a cease-fire in the growing math debate about whether adding and subtracting should be emphasized over solving more complex problems," he added. "The answer is both, and there must be balance and there must be results."

Easing differences on such matters was just one of the themes Mr. Riley unveiled in what is traditionally his highest profile speech of the year.

He also put a new emphasis on the importance of middle schools, arguing that students should be enrolled in algebra by the 8th grade, taking challenging science courses throughout middle school, and be encouraged to avoid vices such as illegal drugs and tobacco.

"Young people who make good choices discover a purpose in life and move forward," he said.

Much of the rest of the speech at Nathan Eckstein Middle School outlined President Clinton's education agenda, which includes federal incentives to hire 100,000 new teachers, a $10 billion, 10-year federal subsidy for school construction, and other new federal programs.

Difficult Goal

The secretary's call for an end to wars over what is taught in reading and math classrooms will be difficult to achieve, according to some involved in the debates. The differences between factions are based on deeply held beliefs.

"Both sides are sincere in their desire to do what they believe is right for kids," said Bill Jacob, a professor of mathematics at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

The debate over methods of reading instruction has raged for years. More recently, critics have come forward to argue that the standards promoted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics emphasize conceptual knowledge at the expense of computational skills.

The difficulty in finding compromises can be seen in California's ongoing effort to adopt content standards and rewrite its curriculum. After more than a year of work, a committee representing both sides of the reading debate unanimously endorsed new statewide standards that balance phonics and whole-language instruction, while a separate panel on math remained divided. ("Math Showdown Looms Over Standards in Calif.," Nov. 5, 1997.)

"I'm not saying it can't work, but I'm saying in California, it didn't work," said Mr. Jacob, a member of a committee writing the curriculum frameworks to accompany the math standards and an advocate for the NCTM standards.

The problem, according to Mr. Jacob, with the state's new math standards is they don't require students to explain how they arrived at the solution to problems--a central objective of the NCTM standards.

"It's possible that the conflicts can be resolved," said Paul Clopton, also a member of the state's math-curriculum frameworks committee and a founding member of a San Diego parents' group formed to protest the way math is taught in the city's schools.

San Diego recently revised its math standards with what Mr. Clopton, who roundly criticizes the NCTM's approach, considers to be the proper balance between conceptual and computational instruction. The district's new standards outline specific steps in the curriculum that lead to every 8th grader's enrolling in algebra--one of Mr. Riley's goals.

As a model, Mr. Riley praised the Learning First Alliance, a coalition of 12 national education groups, for taking steps to improve reading and math instruction that may help achieve a national consensus. A paper on reading issued by the alliance last month, for example, says it is probably best for all pupils to start with well-sequenced phonics, but also stresses the need for reading comprehension and appropriate materials. ("Groups Outline Steps To Boost Reading, Math," Feb. 4, 1998.)

Past Debates

Mr. Riley's call for a "common ground" on the issue is similar to his handling of earlier controversies. Last week, in encouraging a cease-fire in the curriculum debates, he referred to earlier attempts to calm differences over students' right to pray in schools.

The Department of Education convened religious activists and school leaders to hammer out a compromise.

In 1995, President Clinton released a guidebook that explained how students may legally pray in public schools.

"All sides came together and contributed to finding a solution," Mr. Riley said. "I believe we should follow this good example and invest more of our energy in finding common ground on these very sensitive issues."

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